Orcas are the most profitable and controversial display animal in history, and since the release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013, millions around the world have focused on their plight. Yet no historical account has explored how we came to care about killer whales in the first place.
In Orca, Jason Colby tells the exhilarating and often heartbreaking story of how people came to love the ocean's greatest predator. Historically reviled as dangerous pests, killer whales were dying by the hundreds, even thousands, by the 1950s – the victims of whalers, fishermen, and even the US military. In the Pacific Northwest, fishermen shot them, scientists harpooned them, and the Canadian government mounted a machine gun to eliminate them. But that all changed in 1965, when a Seattle entrepreneur named Ted Griffin became the first person to swim and perform with a captive killer whale. The show was a hit, and he began capturing and selling others, including Sea World's first "Shamu".
Over the following decade, live display transformed popular and scientific views of Orcinus orca. The public embraced killer whales as charismatic and friendly while scientists enjoyed their first access to live orcas. In the Pacific Northwest, these captive encounters reshaped regional values and helped drive environmental activism, including Greenpeace's anti-whaling campaigns. Yet even as Northwesterners taught the world to love whales, they came to oppose their captivity. So when Sea World attempted to catch its own killer whales, Northwesterners would fight for the freedom of a marine predator that had become a regional icon.
With access to previously unavailable documents and interviews, Colby offers the definitive history of how the feared and despised "killer" became the beloved "orca" and what that means for our relationship with the ocean and its creatures.
"[Colby] weaves into the narrative first-hand interviews with the sagas main players. The result is immersive and dramatic."
– Sascha Hooker, Nature
"Immersive and dramatic [...] Colby demonstrates the speed at which societal attitudes can also shift the baseline of our expectations. In this age of extinction, with ongoing changes in ocean chemistry and physics, it is the potential for a sea change in public attitude that presents hope."
"This is an affecting book, personal and political all at once, and written by a scholar who has worked hard to recover and relay painful tales of the wild orcas that encountered humans and the humans that did the encountering. Nearly all those meetings began in panic and pain, most of it the whales', though some of it that of the men who came to believe they were doing the wrong thing wresting these breathtaking animals from their world, to deliver them to our own – which has been changed by the resulting episodes of captivity and captivation."
– D. Graham Burnett, author of The Sounding of the Whale
"This fascinating history reveals what happens when humans became captivated by captive orcas. Colby poignantly locates the very origins of conservation in the tense, tender, and tragic relationships between humans and cetaceans. This finely textured social history of the Pacific Northwest opens up the story of how 'killer whales' – once cast as deadly pests – became popular attractions and emotional, intelligent 'orcas'."
– Daniel Bender, author of The Animal Game: Searching for Wildness at the American Zoo
"With Orca, Jason Colby takes readers on a riveting journey. In a matter of decades, the Pacific Northwest's killer whales traveled from despised vermin to regional sweethearts. Their emotional passage revealed the true wildcard of wildlife management: navigating the swirling opinions of human populations. A timely book, Orca brings history to bear on a fraught relationship between two apex predators. Colby traces the rise in human affection for the whales but also the emergence of a cruel realization as audiences cheered captives' performances in aquariums across the globe. Love and fandom could kill and maim as efficiently as fear and contempt. In the end, it's unclear whether orcas benefited from the connection they forged with people."
– Jon Coleman, author of Vicious: Wolves and Men in America
"Killer whales, or orcas – the apex marine predators – were once widely feared as dangerous vermin and were shot on sight. Yet over the past fifty years, a sea change in attitudes towards this remarkable animal took place, and today the species is a revered and cherished global icon of the wild marine environment. In this compelling book, Jason Colby chronicles this transition in our relationship with the killer whale and tells an enthralling story complete with drama and excitement. It is sure to be an important addition to the libraries of natural historians and whale enthusiasts alike."
– John Ford, Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
"Colby shines a light on how little we understand of these magnificent creatures. His book gives a glimpse into a mysterious yet strangely familiar world, brought to life in a story that's tragic, heartbreaking, and finally hopeful."
– Foreword Reviews, Starred Review
"A revealing look at how the human view of orcas has changed [...] Colby persuasively contends that, despite legitimate concerns popularized by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, about the effects of captivity on orcas, the animals avoided extinction because their presence in accessible public venues enabled people to relate to them [...] Colby has produced an originally argued and accessibly jargon-free consideration of a hot-button animal conservation issue."
– Publishers Weekly
"Killer whales, also known as orcas, are idolized, loved, and even revered. Such sentiments, however, have not always been held toward this species, as historian Jason Colby reveals in his new book, Orca [...] Colby does an excellent job of framing these events within the larger environmental movement of the time, as well as placing them within the context of the nationalism that was spreading on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border at the time."
– Robin W. Baird, Science
1. "The Most Terrible Jaws Afloat"
2. The Old Northwest
3. Griffin's Quest
4. Murray Newman and Moby Doll
5. Namu's Journey
6. A Boy and His Whale
7. Fishing for Orcas
8. Skana and the Hippie
9. The Scores at Pender Harbor
10. Supply and Demand
11. The White Whale
12. Penn Cove Roundup
13. Whaling in the New Northwest
14. Big Government and Big Business
15. The Legend of Mike Bigg
16. 17. New Frontiers
18. Haida's Song
19. The Legacy of Capture
Orcas or killer whales have been at the centre of a swirling controversy for decades. Popular attractions in aquaria, their plight there has been highlighted in recent books and documentaries, further strengthening opposition to keeping cetaceans (i.e. whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in captivity. However, as Jason M. Colby meticulously documents in this book, there is a cruel irony at play here: this very practice of captivity is what raised our environmental awareness in the first place.
Colby’s book centres on the Pacific Northwest coast, where both Canada and the USA and several orca pods meet, and spans almost eight decades, from the early 1940s to the present. Before the public thought of orcas as gentle giants, they thought of them as fearsome killers and pests to be eradicated. Back then, the economy in the area was an extractive one, with many people living off logging and fishing. Orcas were seen as unwelcome competition, accused of decimating the salmon stock on which they fed. Though not targeted by the whaling industry (still in full swing at this point), fishermen did regularly shoot at orcas. But it was not just fishermen.
Research on marine mammals in the 1950s focused on northern fur seals, and the knowledge biologists gained was used to make the commercial seal harvest more profitable. Next to overseeing the slaughter of seals, scientists had no qualms harpooning orcas to examine their stomach contents to see if fur seal was on their menu. The Coast Guard and US Navy, meanwhile, regularly supported the fishing industry by slaughtering orcas using machine guns, rockets, and depth charges!
Against this background, Colby introduces one of the book’s main protagonists: Ted Griffin. Fascinated by marine life, he was not convinced of the orca’s fearsome reputation. Believing putting one on public display might change people's attitude, he opened up an aquarium in Seattle. But how do you capture an orca and keep it alive? Spurred on by the capture of an orca named Moby Doll (see The Killer Whale Who Changed the World), he ultimately succeeded in 1965. Nicknamed Namu, the captive orca drew enormous crowds and was widely featured in the media but died only a year later. Griffin was devastated, having bonded with the animal by caring for it, feeding it, and even swimming with it. Unfortunately, he steeled himself and became more distant and business-oriented as a result.
It proved to be a watershed moment, birthing a new industry of aquaria and marine theme parks – first in the USA, then in Europe and Asia. This fueled a demand for orcas and Griffin was closely involved in capturing more of them. He was not the only one, and Colby introduces a large cast of people (including his own father) who became involved over the ensuing decades: competing aquarium entrepreneurs, fishermen, orca trainers, and scientists. I would have liked a timeline or tabular overview of all the key players, as it becomes hard to keep track of all their names. Many of these people are still alive today, and Colby has gone to great lengths to interview them for this book, and to delve into archives and official records.
Griffin was right about one thing: public opinion shifted dramatically. Millions of people saw captive orcas up close, and for many the experience was transformative. In just a decade, orcas went from feared predators to beloved icons. The capture of orcas, which often attracted large crowds, also started to unsettle many. Orcas form tight family bonds and can vocalise. Their cries when being separated have come to haunt many. Scientists, meanwhile, had the opportunity to study living orcas up close and learned much about their intense social nature (see The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins for an up-to-date overview). In combination, this caused public opinion to shift dramatically again, leading to an outcry against the very institutes that had first introduced people to these marine mammals.
Interestingly, my impression from reading the book is that public outcry was initially limited to capture, not captivity. In response, legislation sought, rather hypocritically, to move this activity away from areas frequented by leisure craft. Continued pressure from, amongst others, Greenpeace led to more and wider restrictions and ultimately the drawing up of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. (Greenpeace’s involvement is notable, as former orca trainer Paul Spong heavily influenced their formative years.)
As Casey highlighted in Voices in the Ocean, cetaceans suffer in captivity, and Orca contains harrowing descriptions of accidents, some fatal, both during capture and transportation, but also once orcas had been moved into their pens at aquaria. As this often happened out of sight of the public, it seems that criticism of the practice of keeping cetaceans only arose later. Notably, several former trainers have become vocal opponents (see Death at SeaWorld, Beneath the Surface, Behind the Dolphin Smile, and, of course, the documentary Blackfish).
With Orca, Colby convincingly shows that aquaria have been instrumental in shifting people’s perception of cetaceans. This troubled legacy leaves us with uncomfortable questions that apply to zoos in general. To quote Sir David Attenborough: “no one will protect what they don’t care about and no one will care about what they have never experienced”. But at what price? SeaWorld and others are of course quick to trot out this argument, but does this justify their continued existence? (My impression is that Colby certainly did not write this book to argue this.) Surely, with our awareness now raised, is it not time we moved on?
Colby refrains from advocacy or judgement in this book, acting solely as a historian. What he does mention is that alternatives such as whale-watching tours, and wildlife safaris in general, have their own negative impacts on animals. Similarly, releasing captive orcas back in the wild is rarely successful, the most infamous example being Keiko, the orca starring in the blockbuster movie Free Willy, who died not long after release.
The trade in Pacific Northwest orcas has been documented before (see Of Orcas and Men and Puget Sound Whales for Sale), but Colby masterfully shows how their story is connected to the rise of the environmental movement. Rather than judging in hindsight, he allows the actors to tell their story, warts and all, showing their conflicted attitudes and behaviours; many wanted the best for the orcas but still chose to make a living off their capture, trade and display. Meticulously researched, this is a nuanced, at times disconcerting history that comes thoroughly recommended.
Jason Colby is a scholar of environmental and international history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Born in Victoria and raised in the Seattle area, he has spent most of his life in the Salish Sea. In his high school and undergraduate years, he worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and on fish farms in Puget Sound. His family has close ties to the story of orcas and the Pacific Northwest.